by Kathy Birt
When 19-year-old Maddie Stewart of Frenchfort, P.E.I., entered 4-H at age nine, she may not have had dreams of winning national honours. But that’s exactly what she received in November at the Royal Winter Agricultural Fair in Toronto.
Maddie Stewart and the heifer calf she showed at the Royal finished second as the reserve grand champion in the 2018 TD Canadian 4-H Classic competition. That was after competing in the junior yearling conformation and showmanship competitions. “I didn’t place in showmanship, but placed first in my class for junior yearlings in conformation,” said Maddie.
It was the culmination of six months of work, training, and caring for the animal.
The University of Prince Edward Island student said growing up on her parents’ Gardenvale Farm, which is just 20 minutes from downtown Charlottetown, was “calmer” than growing up in the city. “We had the freedom to do what we want,” she said.
Maddie and her 16-year-old brother Owen have both been 4-H members since the age of nine and have both competed at the local and national levels. The two were around animals from their toddler days, and becoming 4-H members was a natural fit, as both their parents, Ron and Joy, had been 4-H members.
Gardenvale Farm milks 65 registered Holstein cows, and Ron and Joy share farm work as well as keeping the two teens involved. Maddie said the farm grows a lot of hay, and a big part of preparing an animal for shows is feeding just the right amount of hay and some grain. She noted that she was always around the farm after school and on weekends, adding that she is “somewhat competitive” when it comes to her 4-H achievements.
Belonging to the Dunstaffnage Marshfield 4-H Club, Maddie explained that to be eligible for a national competition, 4-Hers must compete at the local level on Achievement Day in July. “This allows us to be eligible to compete in the 4-H circuit,” she said. “We have to enter in May or June and be in the Royal selection class.”
From that competition, they can move on to the local Rural Youth Fair. “We have to be 13 and up to compete at that level,” said Maddie. She said at the younger ages, 4-Hers go to local fairs to compete, but can’t compete for the Royal. “We can place first or second in showmanship and conformation. I was in the top five overall in those years.”
Maddie was 15 when she first competed at the Royal Winter Agricultural Fair with a local calf, Craggan Lucky. The calf came from John and Jill Wood’s farm in Marshfield and was about six months old. “I was kind of in the middle of that class in 2015 where the animal is born in March and competes in November – a six-month old animal,” said Maddie.
PLENTY OF PRACTICE
Her big win last November was with a heifer calf that came from a Quebec farm. According to the Stewart family, it’s common to train and show an animal from another farm. Maddie said the animal’s name was Blondin Avalanche Sasha. “Blondin is the prefix for the farm name, Avalanche is the sire, and Sasha is the cow’s given name,” she said.
The heifer Maddie showed belonged to P.E.I. farmers Hollis Newson of Kingston and Blair Weeks of Breadalbane. “Hollis approached me,” said Maddie. “He had bought the cow at a convention sale.” Joy noted, “We just knew each other being in the same industry.”
Newson noted that Maddie’s success was “tremendous” considering that it was a Canada-wide competition. He also pointed out that the reason he bought the calf in Quebec was because it went back to his own Diamond Hill prefix due to his selling a calf a number of years ago to a Quebec farmer.
The junior yearling heifer was almost two years old at the time of the competition, and Maddie pointed out, “She is the oldest age we can show a dairy calf in 4-H.”
Feeding and grooming are big parts of preparation for the show, but just the right amount of feed is crucial. Joy and Ron agree that you don’t want a dairy cow with extra weight. While some dairy cows eat more than others, Joy said, “For the most part, they are naturally on the lean side.”
Aside from grooming, with a clip here and there, training the heifer and having her become accustomed to her trainer were part and parcel of Maddie achieving top honours. She noted, “I’m not that tall, so after working with her, she comes to realize I was there not to push her around. It takes a lot of practice. I took her out as often as I could, just to walk her around the farm and get her used to noises like the dog and cat and the tractor. I have to learn to keep her calm around all that.”
The heifer was a fixture at Gardenvale Farm from early May until she was shipped to the Royal on Nov. 3. “She is taken up in a truck with a driver who makes regular stops to feed and water,” said Maddie, adding that the animals are well cared for at the Royal during the few days they are there.
THE ROYAL TREATMENT
Maddie and Sasha competed in showmanship on Nov. 5 and in conformation on Nov. 6, with one judge for each class. “The judge mostly walks around looking for imperfections,” said Maddie. “And they test to see if the animal is still. They sometimes touch the animal, but that is rare.”
She said there are different heats for different age groups. “Like junior and intermediate and senior, with four heats in each age group,” she said. “In my class, they look at a lot of things – feet, legs, they look to see if they have a dairy-like neck. Also, the depth or capacity around the stomach. We want to have a deeper animal – deep through the back and belly – to be just right with no fat.”
With all this swirling around in her mind, Maddie had to walk the oval with 30 other contestants while the judge spent limited time around each animal making his decision. “He then goes to the centre of the oval to think things over,” said Maddie. “It’s a nerve-racking experience because I want to do well. At that point, he places all animals one way and takes a second look at them to see if anything changes.”
Maddie said the judge then pointed out the top five or six animals and explained why he picked them. “It’s kind of like you are at the head of the class,” she said. “I think it was feet and legs for my cow, but in the heat of the moment, I can barely remember what he said.”
Maddie continued, “So I placed first in the junior yearling class. This led me to be able to go in for the champion class.” That’s where Sasha was named reserve grand champion.
There was no cheering by her family as Maddie received her reserve grand champion calf banner and two huge ribbons. Joy said they are a pretty low-key family. But Maddie admitted that she was pretty happy and excited to be awarded first in one class and second overall in the show.
“I wasn’t really expecting to win,” said Maddie. “It’s always in the back of your mind. Getting to be in Toronto is memorable and exciting. I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience it. We age out of 4-H at 22, so I hope to compete again.”